IT'S hard to imagine two social groups more different than the angry blue-collar supporters of Communist Party maverick Boris Yeltsin and the articulate, low-key academics who this week revolted against their own leadership. But in their approach to this Sunday's national elections - the first in history offering Soviet voters a real choice of candidates - both groups have been motivated by a common feeling: a sense that they have been disenfranchised by the political system.
Reformers consider this sense of alienation one of the most serious problems facing their bid for vast social and political change.
The electoral campaign has provided a measure of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's ability to overcome this alienation. The results are mixed. If the leadership has found a way to communicate with the academic and intellectual elite, it has been less successful with the alienated workers. The electoral campaign has given these people a chance to express their anger; it has not reconciled them to the system.
In more than a quarter of the country's electoral districts candidates will be unopposed: a tribute, Soviet observers say, to either local apathy or the stranglehold of the local political bosses. And a public opinion poll published in the latest issue of the weekly Moscow News indicates that some 18 percent of young adults do not intend to vote at all.
Ironically, one area where the elections have sparked most interest is in the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The populations there have been activated less by support for Mr. Gorbachev's reforms than by their own agenda of maximum possible autonomy from Moscow. The independent mass organizations in the republics which are spearheading this program view the elections as a rehearsal for crucial elections later this year for their local assemblies.
A major reason for intellectuals' greater political involvement dates to Gorbachev's inspired move in 1986, when he found a link with disillusioned academics and intellectuals: He brought academician Andrei Sakharov back from internal exile. Since then Mr. Sakharov has assumed the role of a yurodivy, the traditional ``holy fool'' of Russian culture who speaks truth to power without regard for discretion, tact, or the appropriateness of the occasion. As such he exerts profound influence on the radical intelligentsia and, more slowly but nonetheless effectively, on the party leadership.
It was Sakharov's exclusion from a slate of Academy of Sciences nominees to the new parliament that sparked this week's revolt. (Lecturers and researchers opposed to the official slate forced a second round of elections. It is expected that Sakharov and a number of other outspoken reformers will be included in a new list of candidates, to be voted on in two weeks' time).
On the other hand, Mr. Yeltsin - who broke with the party leadership after being droppped from the Politburo in early 1988 - has tapped a vein of anti-establishment sentiment that is deeper than anyone imagined. He is running a classic ``them versus us'' campaign. ``They'' are the privileged and powerful, ``we'' are the downtrodden masses. Despite his own impeccable elite credentials, he has been accepted by Moscow's disgruntled workers.
Tolya Ovsyanikov is a fairly typical Yeltsin supporter. He is in his 40s, a machine operator, non-party, and angry. ``I've had it up to here,'' he says, gesturing to his throat, ``with the party organization in my factory, with the director, and everybody else who tells us what to do, then blames us when things go wrong.''
Before Yeltsin, he had not been involved in politics. ``If I had, they would have put me in the nut house. That's what they did with ordinary people who spoke out.'' He rummages in his wallet for a medical certificate he carries, ``in case they arrest me.'' It shows he is mentally sound. Asked if he is a party member, he replies, ``Are you kidding?''
Conversations overheard at the back of crowds at Yeltsin rallies and demonstrations indicate that his supporters see themselves in quiet confrontation with the system. They read - probably correctly - Yeltsin's careful disclaimer on a multi-party system as a clever hint that he in fact supports the idea. When he told a public meeting this week that he would ``never'' challenge Gorbachev for leadership of the country, the crowd refrained from applause. ``But it could happen anyway,'' said one person, who seemed to hope it would.
Whether or not Yeltsin remains a political force after the elections, he has posed a major problem for Gorbachev and party leaders. So far they have been unable to handle it: The crude tactics used against Yeltsin seem only to have succeeded in winning him more votes - including those of white-collar workers and intellectuals who otherwise have been suspicious his political message.